Our story so far

(If you’ve been following the site lately some of this will be redundant, but stick with me — the ending’s good.)

On Sunday, Thomas Friedman wrote:

Yamini Narayanan is an Indian-born 35-year-old with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma. After graduation, she worked for a U.S. computer company in Virginia and recently moved back to Bangalore with her husband to be closer to family. When I asked her how she felt about the outsourcing of jobs from her adopted country, America, to her native country, India, she responded with a revealing story:

“I just read about a guy in America who lost his job to India and he made a T-shirt that said, `I lost my job to India and all I got was this [lousy] T-shirt.’ And he made all kinds of money.” Only in America, she said, shaking her head, would someone figure out how to profit from his own unemployment. And that, she insisted, was the reason America need not fear outsourcing to India: America is so much more innovative a place than any other country.

He goes on to make his usual case: Americans needn’t fear globalization, because our innate pluckiness will always overcome any obstacle. I was a little curious about that guy who made all the money off those shirts, though, and after doing a little Googling I found what I thought was a rather glaring flaw in the anecdote: the shirtmaker was neither unemployed nor American.

Except I got that one wrong. Sort of. You see, Friedman responded, pointing out that there was, in fact, an American selling a similar shirt:

The argument seems to be that it was a British Web site that came up with the idea of the T-shirt — “My job was lost India and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” — and therefore the whole premise of my column was wrong, that Americans are not innovative.

First, all one has to do is Google that phrase and you will discover that it is not only a British Web site offering this t-shirt for sale, but that a U.S.-based Web site, indeed one located in Palo Alto where so many jobs have been lost, has been selling the same T-shirt for some time. It is the online design-your-own t-shirt and apparel store, Zazzle.com

So either someone in America copied it — or independently came up with the idea themselves and therefore it is not a British exclusive. The point I was making about the innovative nature of American society and institutions obviously rests on more than a T-shirt.

Well, the larger point may rest on more, but the specific column is planted firmly atop that anecdotal t-shirt. And it was still an anecdote I found…questionable.

So I tracked down this guy — to whom, let us remember, Friedman personally pointed as a justification for the anecdote upon which Sunday’s column was predicated — and sent him an email, and asked (1) if he is or was unemployed and, (2) if he’s made a bundle of money off his shirts. (Also (3), if he’s an American, which he is — Friedman got that much right.)

His name is Gary Young, and he was gracious enough to respond promptly:

Wow! So that WAS my shirt Friedman was talking about. I had seen the article and laughed…

To answer your questions:

1. No, I didn’t lose my job YET. My department has been told month after month for the last 6 months that we’d be next in line to be offshored. Several peers at my work have had their jobs sent to India, and my partner had his job offshored.

2. Have I made all kinds of money? This is where I laughed the hardest. I’ve made about $10 profit total.

So there you have it. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll say it one more time: this is the guy Friedman himself brought to my attention — and as it turns out, he is neither unemployed (though he fears the prospect) nor a fabulously successful t-shirt entrepreneur, having made about ten bucks off the idea so far.

The future’s not quite bright enough to necessitate sunglasses just yet, it would seem.

Look, my argument is obviously not, as Friedman interprets it, that “Americans are not innovative” — it is that selling novelty t-shirts is not a replacement for a decent paying job with health benefits.

As the man he holds up as an example makes perfectly clear, when given the chance to speak for himself.

By the way, Gary’s t-shirts are here. If enough of you buy one, he’ll make several hundred dollars, which might see him through a week or two if he does, in fact, lose his job.

…just for the record, I’m aware that it’s a complicated, interdependent world, and many of the products I use are, in fact, made overseas, in whole or in part. I just don’t think the solution to that is to ship even more jobs offshore, on nothing more than a utopian promise that our innate ingenuity will somehow see us through. But as I am the first to point out, I am just a simple, uneducated cartoonist.